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Magic-Lakers: Once Again, This Was About Kobe Bryant

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 5, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second half against the Orlando Magic in Game One of the 2009 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 4, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

From Pau Gasol's career climb to the emergence of Dwight Howard to the return of injured guard Jameer Nelson, we will try to make this NBA Finals about something else.

We might pretend that one of the above players owns the key to that shiny, gold sculpture named after some Larry guy.

We can talk about Lamar Odom and Hedo Turkoglu and Trevor Ariza. Hell, we can offer to shine Phil Jackson's shoes and hope he's nice enough to share some coaching tips.

There is one person in this series who matters, and you and I knew that before the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers clashed on the Staples Center hardwood.

Game One, which the Lakers dominated 100-75, was about Kobe Bryant. He notched 40 points and added eight rebounds and eight assists.

This series is about Bryant.

This season has been about Bryant.

His redemption. His fourth championship. His battles with critics. His battles with himself.

After a stirring and yet expected performance in the championship opener, he now sits three wins away from the completion of his quest.

Even Father Time is scowling in the background, distressed by the one who continues to get away.

"I'll get you next time."

To get the 31-year-old Bryant, Father Time has to stop him first.

George Karl wondered in the Western Conference Finals if the son of an even bigger father could do it.

"He made some shots tonight even Jesus would have struggled to defend," Karl said after a 119-92 game six defeat.

Picture this Collect call from Stan Van Gundy and laugh if you want. Given that Jackson has never lost a series after winning the first game, the bulging, ranting, raging, "Master of Panic," Orlando Magic coach needs some divine intervention.

Operator: "Hello, gates of heaven."

Van Gundy: "Uh, yeah. Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Orlando Magic. Listen, uh, is Jesus in? I need a favor."

Operator: "Oh Stan, you again? Just a sec. I'll see if he's done watching Hendrix."

Van Gundy: "What Jimi? He's up there?"

Operator: "No, Richard. Jesus likes the NBA D-League for some reason."

Van Gundy: "OK, whatever. Can you get him?

An awkward several-minute pause ensues.

Jesus: "Uh, hello. Stan? This is Jesus Christ."

Van Gundy: "Wonderful, marvelous. I am thrilled to hear your voice, buddy. Since you know a thing or two about miracles, I was hoping you could help me stop one."

Jesus: "Hmmmm... I'm listening."

Van Gundy: "You think you could suit up for a few games this week and stop Kobe Bryant? We've tried once already, and we got nothing."

Jesus: "Stop Kobe? Heavens no. I can turn his Gatorade into wine and give him some moldy bread, but there's nothing I can do once he steps on that court."

Van Gundy slams his phonebook on the table, sighs and waits a minute before he responds.

Van Gundy: "Jesus...we're screwed."

Indeed, humorous, fictitious phone conversations aside, the odds are stacked against underdog Orlando.

The Magic don't need a higher power's assistance to make more open shots and snag more loose balls.

The Lakers outboarded the Magic 55 to 41 and bullied them with 56 points in the paint.

With better ball movement and increased confidence, Orlando can get more than 22 points inside and bag more of those wide open treys.

The easiest variable to change in a seven-game series is the effort level.

"We need to find a starting point," Van Gundy said. "We need to do a better job rebounding the ball."

Van Gundy also balked at his failed game plan and vowed to craft a better one before Sunday.

He can stay up until 3 a.m., as he said he would do last week, but no amount of planning will account for him.

Not Jesus, but Bryant—the one player in this series who cannot be diagrammed, understood or halted.

In one fitting sequence of this mismatch, Dwight Howard delivered a perfect chest pass off a double team to an open Rashard Lewis. No Laker was within 20 feet of the Magic's sharp-shooting forward.

Brick.

Bryant ran the ball up the other end, dribbled down the clock and nailed a stepback jumper off contact from a hard double team.

Mickael Pietrus could not have defended the shot any better than he did. The help defense was exquisite.

Isn't this what Kobe does?

He worked in the sort of way that makes Spike Lee wistful. He dazzled in the sort of way that inspires hateful chants and dejected dozens.

In Bryant's own game of H-O-R-S-E, the Magic reached "E" before he could break a sweat.

Gasol scored 16 points and hauled down eight rebounds. Odom contributed 11 points and 14 rebounds. Even Luke Walton poured in nine points on four-of-five shooting.

The Lakers wealth of talent is undeniable. No other roster contains such a lethal combination of length, quickness and athleticism.

Bryant's championship moxie and indefensible will, though, makes them rich.

The polarizing star left Staples Center with all of the money bags.

Now, Van Gundy has to hope Bryant feels charitable enough to give a few back.

With Bryant, it's never chump change. He either hits the jackpot or folds on a flop.

Hundreds of players would have been satisfied with a run to the NBA Finals last year. Most of them would have lamented a 39-point beatdown at the hands of the Boston Celtics but savored the glory of a conference championship.

Not Bryant. His ego forbids him from such concessions.

He began this season yelling "championship or bust" as loud as he could, hoping his teammates would listen and follow suit.

Many questioned whether the Lakers' toughness could match Bryant's volume.

Thursday night, Bryant found a megaphone and delivered a final answer even Regis Philbin would not question.

Call it a clear, concise statement for the hard of hearing.

This series is about Bryant.

Only his physical gifts and unflappable determination could nullify the Magic's season sweep.

Only Bryant could make meaningful numbers in January meaningless in June.

Throw away the sheet with the box score. Shred the scouting reports.

If Bryant was a talent who could be defined by such documents, the Magic would have a prayer.

It's fair to wonder if Dwight Howard and his teammates appreciate the rarity and opportunity that is the NBA Finals.

They looked frightened, clueless and starstruck in a 25-point defeat.

Bryant happily led the whacking.

The Magic lost the opener by a bunch and now must do what 43 other teams could not. Orlando fans, don't hold your breath.

Last year, the Lakers ran into a freight train headed by three veteran All-Stars who longed for a championship. No one could dent the resolve and desire of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

This time, Bryant is the sole focal point, even if we want to make it about everyone else.

No one else in this series carries such a burden or remarkable ability.

It's about Kobe.

You knew that.

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